It is estimated that a language dies every two weeks. This means that every two weeks, we lose a part of human history and culture, and a unique view of the world.
Languages dying is nothing new, but the rate at which they’re dying is becoming ever more alarming. What’s even more troubling is that the majority of endangered languages are those spoken by indigenous people.
Let’s take a look at some figures reported by the United Nations (UN) before we dig deeper.
Language is a direct reflection of the people who speak it. It contains their shared identity, culture, history, and unique way of thinking. Language is a mirror of society.
It’s also an integral part of our daily lives. Apart from being our most basic communication tool, languages play a crucial role in social integration, development, and education. Without language access, there is no freedom of expression. There is no way of accessing or sharing knowledge. There is no way to defend one’s human rights.
This is why the status of a language also mirrors the situation of its speakers. This is true for all languages, but particularly relevant when it comes to indigenous languages. In many parts of the world, indigenous languages are on the verge of extinction — and so are the communities who speak them.
Half of the world speaks the largest 16 languages. Indigenous people only account for six percent of the world’s population but speak the majority of the world’s seven thousand languages.
The Endangered Languages Project refers to the unprecedented decline in languages around the globe as a form of “mass extinction.” They estimate that around 40 percent of the world’s languages are endangered. Most of them are indigenous ones.
This is particularly disturbing because indigenous languages are extremely rich in culture. They are complex knowledge systems, full of ancient wisdom and a unique understanding of the world. They are an integral part of our shared human heritage.
Considering the rapid decline of indigenous languages around the globe, the UN dedicated 2019 to encourage urgent action. This is significant because it’s the first project to address the issue on a global scale. Governments, academics, and researchers are involved and all united around the same goal: to preserve, revitalize and promote indigenous languages.
The UN’s project is built on five pillars:
The UN’s initiative is significant because of its global reach. However, even before 2019, there have been organizations that have dedicated their time and effort to preserving and promoting indigenous languages, as well as supporting indigenous communities. Let’s take a look at two such initiatives and how they tackle the issue at hand.
Latinoamérica Habla is a relatively new organization, based in Santa Fe, Argentina. In Santa Fe, 1.5 percent of the population are recognized as indigenous — that’s about 48,265 people.
The goal of Latinoamérica Habla is to help revitalize Indigenous languages in the region and facilitate progress for the community. The current focus is on three local indigenous languages: Qom, Mocoví, and Guaraní.
Together with their team, Founder Cecilia Piaggio, and Director Eugenia Urrere, are working on four projects to support local indigenous communities:
On August 15th, Cecilia and Eugenia will present a bill to the provincial government to grant official language status to Qom, Mocoví, and Guaraní. They are being backed by the Instituto Provincial de Aborígenes Santafesinos (IPAS), the official organization of indigenous languages in Santa Fe. They also have the support of a government representative.
Official recognition is an essential step. Cecilia says that right now it’s almost like these communities don’t exist. They are not being considered by the government and don’t have the same opportunities in terms of education. In some extreme cases, people were even arrested without understanding why, simply because no interpreters were available.
Cecilia and Eugenia hope that official status will create obligations on the side of the government. They also believe that official status will generate work for the community in their mother tongue. For example, when documents suddenly have to be translated and people are given the right to interpreters in public settings. Education will benefit too, once indigenous children receive the right to be educated by teachers who speak their native language.
Cecilia believes that technology is the vehicle to equal opportunity. That’s why they have started a glossary with technical terms for the local community. It’s supposed to be a toolkit with terms necessary for the digital era, which will enable the community to use the internet and social media. Cecilia points out that the chances of survival are much higher if a language is digitalized and people can consume information in their mother tongue. As many of the indigenous people in Santa Fe are nomads, social media also allows them to stay in touch while they’re on the road.
Alongside the glossary, the organization is creating a bilingual archive. Cecilia and Eugenia are gathering materials and documents from around the world that once belonged to the Qom community. They are collaborating closely with the University of Texas and the Ibero-American Institute of Berlin.
For now, they are mainly compiling and digitizing materials and creating glossaries. What initially seemed so minor to Cecilia and Eugenia, was received overwhelmingly positively by the Qom community. The archive is extremely valuable to the community, as it is something from their culture that had been stolen and now belongs to them again.
Another project for indigenous languages and communities comes from the other side of the world — Queensland, Australia. CEO Tea Dietterich and her team at 2M Language Services are providing interpreting services to people in remote indigenous communities. Australia has many indigenous languages and more than 300 of them are endangered. Tea and her team believe that interpreting can help to preserve them.
In 2018 the Queensland government selected 2M Language Services as the sole provider for indigenous languages interpreting for anything that falls under their obligations, such as healthcare and court interpreting. At the moment, 2M Language Services provide interpreting for six indigenous languages in Queensland and two in the Northern Territory. They have a team of 15 interpreters for this type of work, most of whom still live in the remote communities they are from or nearby.
While most jobs are done onsite, Tea and her team quickly realized that providing onsite services would be challenging or next to impossible for some remote locations. So, they partnered up with Boostlingo to offer remote interpreting solutions. Their platform is called 2M Lingo. By now, 20 to 30 percent of their indigenous language interpreting is done either via over-the-phone interpreting (OPI) or video remote interpreting (VRI). They report that feedback from their clients has been positive.
Cecilia and Eugenia of Latinoamérica Habla report that part of the challenge comes from indigenous speakers not speaking their own languages. This can have a number of different reasons but is mostly linked to social status. Communities might not see value in speaking their language if the dominant ones open more doors.
In addition, indigenous languages are often linked to low social status, discrimination, and exclusion, which stems from colonial times. Today, speakers still feel like they are being looked down upon. This makes them abandon the language.
Latinoamérica Habla has made it their goal to support communities in revitalizing their languages so that they can take pride in them again.
2M Languages has been working around obstacles, too.
First of all, many indigenous languages have very few speakers, which makes it even harder to find someone who can interpret. Once someone is found, there can be a number of logistical problems, such as the interpreter being in a remote community where the internet connection is not good enough. Other issues can arise if, for example, the interpreter does not have a webcam to allow for VRI.
The even bigger challenge is in the area of official accreditation. In Australia, governments require interpreters to be certified by the National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters (NAATI). This is extremely difficult for indigenous languages because the process requires testing materials and someone who can certify an interpreter.
Out of the 15 interpreters for indigenous languages at 2M Language Services, maybe half are NAATI-certified. The rest are waiting for NAATI to create test materials, which is a very lengthy process.
In our industry, we help to break down cultural and linguistic barriers. However, the industry mainly focuses on dominant world languages. It makes sense from a business perspective — there is a higher demand and more profits can be made.
But companies should consider supporting indigenous languages as well. Not only for all the right reasons named above but also because there are business opportunities in this fairly untapped market.
Yes, this might be a niche market. And yes, implementation might be more complex. But our industry has the experience and the resources to tackle this.
In particular, remote interpreting holds a lot of potential in this area. OPI and VRI solve the issue of reaching people in remote locations and it is becoming increasingly easy and affordable to add remote solutions to existing business models.
As with all niches, they might be small, but they can also be a differentiator and an opportunity to expand the market.
Language is our business, so let’s make this our business.
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